Not Your Car!

    Three young men surrounded the car in the schoolyard. Parvathy, wondering what they wanted, was about to ask when she saw the gun and instantly turned into ice. The leader yanked open the door and motioned her out. But she was frozen, mesmerised by the gun, which was hissing at her, “Get out, this is not your car! This is not your car!”  Someone grabbed her and pushed her out. Lying on the ground, she saw the three agents of the syndicate jump in and drive off. Then all the statues around her thawed and everyone was running about.
    Parvathy, still staring in the direction of her car’s dusty wake, was only vaguely aware of Mrs Shabangu, a member of staff, helping her up. Parvathy couldn’t believe how eagerly Kogila, her Toyota, had gone off with the repossession squad. She could have stalled? But she’s never stalled. It was devastating to hear Kogila in the distance, her motor roaring jubilantly, “Free at last! Free at last! I am off into the Great Unknown. Goodbye Parvathy and good riddance! Don’t try to find me. I’m not your car anymore.” Parvathy was shocked that Kogila, caught up in the excitement of the moment, could just race off like that. How ungrateful! Parvathy had provided her with a wonderful life, safe and secure. She was never required to go on long arduous journeys into perilous territory and she spent a good deal of her time relaxing in the garage. What more did she want? Adventure, excitement, thrills? What nonsense! But she had to admit; Kogila was a spirited little car. Was it possible she was bored with driving to the store to buy Parvathy’s favourite ginger jellies?
    Parvathy knew that cars cooperate completely with hijackers; that is why owners never get them back. Like Kogila, they imagine that they are living in dreadful slavery and actually court the attention of hijackers. Parvathy couldn’t believe that Kogila, at the mature age of six years, wanted adventure. She was just a basic little car without even a clock or radio but Parvathy knew she envied the big luxury models that flaunt their speed, their radios, speakers, telephones and air-conditioning. Perhaps Kogila despises me because I don’t have much money. Perhaps I have been too selfish, thinking only of myself. I know she hates that internal gear lock that fits like a garrotte and maybe she’s ashamed of the alarm system that goes off at all hours and mainly in the garage. I should have got it fixed. In her mind’s eye she could see Kogila laughing, “And what good are they? I have been freed in spite of them.” But Kogila was dizzily speeding off, probably to a chop shop.
    She looked up and found herself surrounded by the concerned faces of the teachers. She had come on her usual Tuesday morning call to Nelson Mandela Primary to deliver jerseys and socks, her knitting club’s contribution to children in the informal settlement. She had greeted all the teachers, deposited her box in the staff room and got into her car ready to drive off when Kogila was taken from her. No! When Kogila had abandoned her! She had run off and left her stranded. Tears rolling down her cheeks, Parvathy could only murmur, “She’s gone, my Kogila, she’s gone! What am I going to do?”
    Parvathy who was being comforted by Mrs Shabangu, felt her stiffen. Huge shock written all over her face, she wanted to know, “Dear Lord, was there someone in the car? Who is this Kookalia? Your daughter?”
    “No, no, no. Kogila, you know, my car. Mind you, she is like a daughter. She goes everywhere with me. What am I going to do? I am so dependent on her. What am I going to do?”
    Mrs Shabangu gave her a strange look, took her into the staff room and made her a big cup of tea. “Did they get your handbag too?” When Parvathy nodded, she asked, “What did you have in there?”
    “My ID, bankcard, pensioner’s card and fifty rands. All gone, with my Kogila.” Her hands were trembling and tea spilled into the saucer. She put the cup down, covered her face and began sobbing again. She felt so ashamed. How could she be blubbering like this? But every time she thought of Kogila she couldn’t help herself. “Oh God, my Kogila is gone. What am I going to do without her?” Parvathy felt stupid to be breaking down like this, especially when Mrs Shabangu was being so kind, calling the bank, giving them all the details and securing her accounts.
    “How am I going to get home? My keys. They took all my keys.  I won’t be able to get into my house.”
    Just then the Principal, Mr Sithole, put his head round the staff room door. “The police are here. They’re waiting for you outside.” He led Parvathy out and helped her climb the high step into the police van. All the way to the local police station, she couldn’t stop mumbling, “Kogila, Kogila, Kogila.” At the police station, she told her sad story of abandonment to the sergeant at the desk, then to a detective in his office, but they didn’t care about Kogila’s betrayal. They only wanted a description of ‘the car’ and as Parvathy lovingly dwelt on the little dents, the scratch on the windscreen, the missing hub cab, the front bumper that had come loose, she kept losing control. The detective, who for some reason couldn’t look her in the eye, got up and left her there in the office.
    A young man, sitting at another of the desks, looked very dejected. Perhaps he would listen to her story. Tearfully she ventured, “Have you been hijacked too?”
    The young man turned an agitated face to her. “No. Somebody break in my shack and steal all my things.” He shook his head. “I buy this shack so I can have my own place. Then I buy music centre and CD’s. Cost me two thousand. That no-good Jabavu. He’s watching all the time He’s the one. He rob me. I know it. He don’t work, just sit around and wait. When the people go for work, he break in and steal. I know it’s him. I seen the tekkie marks on the side. His tekkies. I know that. I ask him about his tekkies and he say he didn’t wear them that day. But I know it’s him. If they don’t do anything, I will. He mustn’t think he’s safe. I will get him. I didn’t go for work today. I come here to report.” His distress was obvious. “I lose one day’s pay.” He sat there shaking his head.
    Glad that he had finished, Parvathy gave a little sob and burst out, “Kogila...,” but before she could tell him her sad story, his detective came in and they went off together. She sank back in her chair and waited. She waited a long time but nobody came back, not even her detective. Haunted by visions of Kogila’s smiling face flying off into the distance, she gave one foghorn blast after another into her tissues.  When she couldn’t bear it any longer, she stumbled out into the dim corridor and back to the reception area wailing, “Kogila, Kogila, Kogila.” There everyone looked at her strangely. Nobody wanted to help her. Some of them stood about laughing and others rudely told her to be quiet. When the sergeant who had taken her statement came back to his desk, she went straight to him and when he saw her in front of him again, he quickly sent out a call to the policemen who had brought her to the station. When they came in, they were very kind, making sure she had her case number for the insurance company before they took her home. But she had no keys and couldn’t get into her house, so she went next door to her neighbour, Mulligay.
    Mulligay took one look at her distraught face and burst out, “What’s wrong, Aathè?”
     “Kogila, she left me.” To her shame, Parvathy began to cry again. Mulligay gathered Parvathy to her and cradled her in her arms. “What happened? You look terrible. Come inside and tell me all about it?” She took Parvathy into the kitchen, made tea and sat down with her at the little table. As she recounted the events again, Parvathy began to feel a rage building up inside her. After all she had done for Kogila, to be cast aside like this? She was amazed when Mulligay, who had completely missed the point of her story, began to scold her, “How many times I told you not to go there alone? How many times I told you how dangerous it is? You lucky to be alive.” When Mulligay’s daughter, Sundari, walked in with her four-year old son, Vasi, Mulligay jumped up. “Aunty Parvathy was hijacked! At gunpoint! Isn’t it terrible? She’s so lucky they didn’t kill her.”
    Vasi ran up to Parvathy. “Parti, they hi-jack you? With a gun?  Big gun like this?” He indicated with his hands. “What did you do? Did you fight them?”
    “Don’t be silly, Vasi. You can’t fight someone with a gun.” His mother turned apologetic eyes on Parvathy.
    But Vasi was adamant. “I would have. They wouldn’t have got me. I give one karate kick and they go flying. Then I take them like this, bang them like this and throw them like that. ” Vasi pranced all around the kitchen demonstrating how he would have dealt with the hijackers. “Why you didn’t fight, Parti?”
    Parvathy didn’t mind the boy but she could see that his mother was embarrassed. She scolded him, “That’s enough now, Vasi. Go and play outside.”
    Instead Vasi ran up to Parvathy again. “I give them one kick like this and they dead.” Sundari grabbed him, took him into the sitting room and set him in front of the TV to subdue him. She came back quite contrite. Parvathy wanted to tell her not to punish Vasi but Sundari didn’t give her a chance. “Aunty, I’m so sorry. What an awful thing to happen! These days, you aren’t safe anywhere. When I was putting Vasi in the car to come here, I saw some funny looking characters watching me.  The way I jumped into the car, so fast, locked up and dashed off. How terrible Aunty! Where did it happen?”
    Before Parvathy could open her mouth, Mulligay answered, “In Nelson Mandela Haven.” Parvathy was annoyed especially when she saw them exchanging knowing looks. They had never been to the informal settlement, so what did they know? But they were going on like a couple of experts.
    “What can you expect? That’s a squatter camp! A dangerous place. Don’t know why anyone wants to go there. We should keep out of those places. You went there alone?”
    “She goes every Tuesday. Alone!” Mulligay nodded slowly and significantly. “They must have been watching her.”
    “Ya, you an easy target, Aunty. With all this grey hair. Ts, ts, ts,” Sundari shook her head.
    But Parvathy had stopped listening. She simply insisted, “Kogila is gone.” In her mind’s eye she could still see Kogila’s grin. When Sundari raised her eyebrows questioningly at her mother, Parvathy became impatient.
    Mulligay explained, “The car - Aunty Parvathy’s car. She named her Kogila.” She saw Sundari’s eyes widen as she pressed her lips together to choke back laughter. Mulligay continued, “They took all her keys. Now she can’t get into the house. I must call Morgan. He must bring a locksmith.” When Mulligay went off to telephone her son, Sundari sat down but Parvathy didn’t want to talk to her. She sat quietly until thoughts of Kogila overcame her again and words came tumbling out. “What am I going to do? My Kogila left me. We did everything together. Now I’m all alone. I don’t know how I will manage. What use is my life now?”
     “What can you do, Aunty? When your time comes you got to go. Your car is gone. You won’t get it back. It’s not your car anymore.” A huge sob escaped Parvathy. How could this girl say something like that? What did she know about loss?
    “Don’t cry, Aunty.” Parvathy wanted her to shut up but she went on and on. “You are a Hindu. You believe in reincarnation. You know Kogila will come back. Not to you, but she will come back. In another form.” Parvathy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. This girl had completely wiped her Kogila out of existence. Then Sundari floated off into her own fantasy. Sitting there, right in front of Parvathy, she was prattling on, “In another form, perhaps a Mercedes sports car.” Parvathy saw the dreamy look in her eyes and turned her head away in annoyance. If only she could go home. Mulligay returned to assure her that Morgan was on his way and she would soon be in her own house.
    “Have you had any lunch? I can dish up quickly.”
    “No, thank you very much. I can’t eat anything.”
    “But it’s three o’ clock. You went out early this morning; you must be starving.”
    “Thank you, Mulligay. But I can’t eat. How can I eat when Kogila is gone?” When she saw Sundari trying to hide her smile, she stood up and announced that she would wait in her own yard. But Mulligay forced her back into her chair and sent her daughter out of the kitchen.
    Late that afternoon, Parvathy was back in her house.  She wanted to lie down but Mulligay was right behind her. And before she knew it, Mulligay had taken charge of proceedings. She ignored Parvathy’s protests and set Sundari the task of calling all the neighbours and friends. Then she reorganised Parvathy’s sitting room. She pushed the chairs and the sofa against the walls, “For visitors who come to commiserate,” she said. She propelled Parvathy into her bedroom, dressed her in a white sari and seated her in the living-room, next to the kuthuvillaku (standing lamp) that she had fetched from her house with other brass vessels. Parvathy heard her whispering to Sundari, who was busy on the ‘phone, “She doesn’t even have a lamp in her house.” She lit the lamp and the cube of camphor on the brass tray, set out flowers, banana, betel leaf, betel nut and ashes and lit the incense sticks in the little brass vases. Then she arranged all these ritual items around a garlanded photograph of Kogila. Parvathy, who kept dozing off, was only vaguely aware of what was happening.
    When visitors began streaming in after sunset, Mulligay shook her and she opened her eyes and stared blankly. Why were they taking off their shoes and talking in reverential whispers? She thought she was dreaming when she saw them rotating the tray before Kogila’s picture, drawing stripes of ash on their foreheads and sitting down along the walls in attitudes of mourning. When new arrivals entered, there were muted, “Vanakams” as they raised their hands in solemn greeting to all those seated along the walls. After the little ritual before Kogila’s picture, the men went directly to the chairs on their side of the room where they sat, eyes downcast, whispering when they felt the necessity to speak. The women embraced Parvathy who slumped in their arms heavy with sleep. Each woman that entered tried to engage her in a whispered dialogue but she didn’t respond. She knew t is was a dream, a very strange dream.
    When the women began chanting bhajans and singing kirtans and all joined in, Parvathy’s head jerked back and suddenly she was wide awake and astonished at what she saw. What are these people doing in my house? Sundari popped her head out of the kitchen and called in a couple of women to help bring in the tea. In between her fits of dozing, Parvathy had caught whiffs of frying goolgoolas, bhajias and vadès, all vegetarian fare, the kind of stuff her neighbours made for religious ceremonies. She felt trapped. These people had invaded her home but she didn’t have the energy to chase them out. When she heard Mulligay whispering to the women that next week there would be a yetoo, the eighth day ceremony after a funeral, and that the women were expected to come and cook for the occasion, she roused herself from her stupor.
     “Yetoo? What is that for?”
    “It’s a very important ceremony.”
    “But what is it for?”
    “You mustn’t ask such things. There is always a yetoo when someone dies.”
    Parvathy burst out, “Who died?”
    Mulligay ignored her question. “I already told everyone. They will all be coming on Monday. My son has arranged for a priest to conduct the yegyim.” Parvathy screamed, “I don’t care; I don’t want any of this,” but only a few croaking sounds issued from her throat.
Mulligay just shook her head. “Sometimes, Athè, I think you deserve what’s happening to you. You don’t believe in anything. You didn’t even do the pumpkin ceremony to bless the car? No wonder you were hijacked.”
    “She didn’t bless the car!” The visitors were shocked.
    “Where she goes to the temple?” Mulligay continued contemptuously.
    “No wonder she was hijacked.”  
    Parvathy tried to speak but everyone ignored her crackling noises.
    “She doesn’t come to the temple, she doesn’t even light the lamp or pray and she’s always running round to the squatter camps.”  
    Then Sundari and her helpers came in from the kitchen with trays of tea and snacks and set them down ready for the end of the ceremonial activities. This was the signal for the last few bhajans. And while the group was solemnly singing the most reverential hymns, Parvathy, mad with frustration, was trying to collect her strength. She made a great effort and suddenly she was standing. The singing died down and she heard her neighbour’s shocked voice, “What are you doing? We are in the middle of Pinaki Ilaathe Perinthurai Perumane.”
    “What does it mean?” she managed to croak back.
     “It’s a very holy song. We always sing it at funerals.”
    “My Kogila is not dead,” she croaked and as she stumbled out she was aware of women slapping hands across gaping mouths and men shaking their heads. She escaped to her bedroom, locked herself in, fell on the bed and was soon snoring away.  
    The next morning, she found her house back to normal. All the ritual paraphernalia was gone and the furniture back in place. What resounded in her head this morning were her own words, “Kogila is not dead.” That gave her new resolve. She was going to get her back.  For the next week, she was embroiled in battle with the insurance company. When she phoned to tell them that Kogila was gone, she encountered the same funereal mentality of her neighbours. The insurance agents also regarded Kogila as deceased and wanted Parvathy to put in for a replacement vehicle. But Kogila was not dead. “I only called to inform you that Kogila has been stolen. I am not making a claim. I thought you had to be informed.”
     No matter how many times she told them she was not making a claim, she got the same stock response: If she was not prepared to make a claim, there was nothing they could do for her.
    At the end of the week, she got a call from Sergeant Mahlangu of the border police at Osshoek. Her car had been found. The thieves had tried to take it through a roadblock but the police had been given such a good description that they had identified it easily, even though it had Swazi number plates. Parvathy would have to go to Swaziland to identify the car and sign for its release. Parvathy was delighted. She ran over to her neighbour whom she had forgiven for consigning Kogila to the dead. “Mulli, Mulli, they found Kogila. They found my car.” Then she ran back home to inform the Nelson Mandela Haven Police Station where she had made her statement. Mahlangu had told her that the police there would bring her out to Osshoek. But their telephone wasn’t working. So she telephoned ten different police stations in surrounding areas and eventually located the sergeant, who had taken her statement. He had been reassigned to another police station. She knew he would be as glad as she was that Kogila had been found.
    She shouted into the ‘phone, “They found Kogila. They found her. She’s on the Swazi border.”  
    Parvathy knew that being a sergeant he couldn’t display his emotion and accepted the calmness in his tone when he asked, “Oh, Miss Moonsami, did you get your wallet back?” Parvathy was puzzled. “They found it the same day. It’s at Nelson Mandela Police Station.” Parvathy was shocked. They’d had her wallet for over a week and hadn’t made any attempt to inform her. She had to get to Nelson Mandela Haven right away.
    Parvathy ran over to her neighbours again and Morgan took her to the police station where she collected her wallet and asked when they would take her to Osshoek. She found that they wouldn’t commit themselves to a time. Again Morgan helped her out. One of his clients was going to Swaziland the next day and he made arrangements for her to go with him. Parvathy called Inspector Mahlangu to tell him she was coming and he insisted that she get a clearance letter from the insurance company.
    “But it’s my car. You have a copy of my registration papers!
“You must get the insurance company to fax me a clearance letter.”
    “It’s my car.”
    “I need the letter from the Insurance Company.”
    So she called the insurance company again and was passed on from one to another of what seemed like a hundred different people and, while on hold in between, she learned the melody of Johan Strauss’ Voices of Spring. Eventually, she found someone, The Sender-of-Faxes, who wouldn’t help her because she had not made a claim.
     “We need claim forms.”
    “I’m not claiming.”  
    “We need claim forms.”
    “But it’s my car.”  
    For a couple of hours the calls went back and forth until The Sender-of-Faxes at last agreed to send off a fax stating that Parvathy had not made a claim but the police could release the vehicle to her.  
    The next day, she took the ride to Swaziland and was dropped off at Osshoek only to be told, “Inspector Mahlangu is not here. He went off early this morning.” Parvathy collapsed in a chair. What was she to do now? She was stranded in a strange place. Her informant laughed, “Don’t look so sad. I am Inspector Mahlangu. I just wanted to see what you would do?” Parvathy was not amused.
    After the rituals of identification and filling out of forms, Parvathy eventually drove off with a much-chastened Kogila. Her gears were not working properly. The gear lock had been removed and had apparently thrown her second gear out of alignment. In the four-hour journey back, Parvathy’s antennae were stretched to the limit as she struggled with the gears along strange roads. Through the mess of a windscreen that had been painted over for storage in the police lot and had not been cleaned properly, she probed the darkness for hijackers. She knew that Kogila too was tense and only concentrated on home. She had had her adventure and would be glad to return to normal. Parvathy was sure she was looking forward to a simple life again: resting in the garage and going to the store to pick up ginger jellies.